Note: This interview discusses plot points from the season-two episode of Pose, “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”
FX’s Pose is as ambitious a series as there ever was. Not only have co-creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals crafted an exquisitely detailed period drama, replete with razor-sharp wordplay, soapy scheming, and breakout performances from a luminous cast, they’ve ensured this story of New York City ball culture remains centered on the queer people of color and trans people of color who founded the scene. But Pose’s most visionary aspect is its rejection of the dominant, misery-focused narrative for LGBTQ+ stories; the series is unabashed in its efforts to provide a refuge and a platform for the most vulnerable within already marginalized groups.
But the FX drama is equally committed to truth in its storytelling, never shying away from the very real dangers to trans women, especially black trans women, who face violence and housing instability in disproportionate numbers. In tonight’s episode, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” these threats become heartbreaking reality when Candy Ferocity is killed. Played by Angelica Ross, the fearless Candy went from House Of Abundance member to House Of Ferocity founder. Spirited and always serving face, Candy rose to the challenge of being a house mother, only to be slain by a client when she turned to sex work to provide for her family. Murphy, who directs the episode (which he co-wrote with Janet Mock), spares his cast and viewers the details, focusing instead on Candy’s legacy.
The incredibly bittersweet episode offers a spectacular showcase for Ross, who rivals only Billy Porter (who plays emcee and mentor Pray Tell) in withering retorts. An actor, writer, and CEO/founder of TransTech Social Enterprises, Ross uses her platform to advocate for black trans women and speak out against injustice. The A.V. Club spoke with Ross about harsh realities, sparring with Porter, how she inspired her Pose role, and bidding farewell to this groundbreaking series.
The A.V. Club: There’s some light foreshadowing early on in the episode—one of the categories during that last ball that Candy attends is “Higher Than Heaven.” But how soon did you learn about Candy’s fate this season? Was it pretty early into filming season two?
Angelica Ross: Yes, it was pretty early in the filming, I believe, because I know that I was at my home in Atlanta when Ryan Murphy called me. I think I had just went home because I had a quick break after one of the episodes. I knew when no one else knew. So even after he told me, I was keeping this secret, which was super, super hard to keep. Yeah, it was one of those things where I probably knew a good solid month maybe before everyone else knew.
[Ryan] just called me up—it was like, “I’m just going to pull the Band-Aid off, rip the Band-Aid off and let you know.” It was bittersweet, because I knew that the episode was going to be epic, but I also did not want to leave the show. But it was of those things–one, I don’t think that Candy had the time for us to see her, to see her, to get to know her, to get to know her story, for it to really unfold. I was definitely looking forward to seeing and playing more of that. Then immediately, I’m hit with the real world, that there are all of these trans girls who deserved more time to have their stories unfold. So it’s sort of like, why not Candy’s sort of situation? It is bittersweet, but at the same time as an actor, it’s one of those things where I know in my heart that I’m not being written off in a way that’s punitive. There was so much love in that script and on that set while we were filming.
AVC: The cast is so tight knit—was it hard to keep that secret from everyone else? Were there ever any moments where you kind of wanted to confide it to someone?
AR: Yeah. It was so hard, because I was processing it and I’m still processing Candy’s death. K was processing it while still filming other stuff, while doing everything else. As actors, we have hopes for our storylines and where things are going to go. And here I’ve got the real-world ballroom scene legend that is Leiomy [Maldonado] in the House Of Ferocity as Florida Ferocity. She’s been voguing the house down. We’ve got Lulu (Hailie Sahar) and we’ve got Veronica, who’s played by Bianca Castro, who you might know as Jiggly Caliente from RuPaul’s Drag Race.
And we had this kind of sisterhood. That’s what happens when you’re grouped together, you start bonding as a family. We started this sisterhood. We’re hoping for all these different things that might happen with the House Of Ferocity. But as we’re having those conversations, I’m kind of this double agent—I can’t tell them what I know [about episode four]. I just feel like I’m lying, and that’s not who I am. I’m very authentic and transparent. That’s a part of who I am. So to not be able to be during this was torture for me. [Laughs.] It was torture, because I love all of them, and I wanted to tell them all as soon as I knew.
AVC: That directness is a quality you share with your character, who was actually tailored to you after you first auditioned, right? That must have been an incredible feeling.
AR: Well, Ryan Murphy actually wrote the character for me. I went and auditioned for Blanca. When I didn’t get that role, he sent a message through to my people, which I thought was odd, but I thought that he was just trying to like soften the blow a little bit. But he sent a message saying, “Hey, listen, you had a great audition. I think you are a great actor, and I hope to be able to work with you in the future.” I’m glad Ryan Murphy’s saying this to me, and I’m also thinking, “You didn’t have to say that. Thank you.”
I found out later that he actually created the character of Candy after meeting me. But then to learn that they didn’t know where to go with Candy—they didn’t really know who Candy was or where to go [with her]. So I showed up as Candy, as I saw her, and Ryan lit up like a Christmas tree and just sort of started going with my character. And a lot of times, especially with Pray Tell (Billy Porter), Ryan will give me a mile and a half of leeway to improv. We just have so much fun on set. That’s why I’m going to miss it. To work with someone as brilliant as Ryan who trusts your instincts, that’s incredible. I kind of, at first, I was insulted, because I felt a certain way about there not being a certain preparation around some of my themes and some of the things that I was doing. But then, you just feel this utmost respect from everyone for what you show up with and them seeing that what they want is what I can organically bring to the character. So much so that even with the script, I actually changed so many of my lines. In episode four, I think originally Candy when she interrupts Pray Tell at the diner, the rest of the council asks, “Well, how did you find out where we were?” Candy saying, “Oh well, everybody knows this is where you ingrates meet,” I think is what the line was. I know it’s almost as if—it’s like filler, you know? Or at least I feel like they’re their cues to me, because I was short and do all kind of things. But with this specific line, I changed it to, “Everybody knows this is where you bottoms brunch.” And tell you that the entire set went in a uproar of laughter.
Actually, even with Miss Orlando (Cecilia Gentili) in episode three [of season two], I added the line, “Bullshit, you speak Spanish, bitch.” It’s one of those lines that becomes an iconic Candy line, because I’m a improver and I’m a writer. So I appreciate those moments from them to sort of... it’s so funny, because sometimes other people may try to do it, and it’s just their thing. But literally, there’s this respect, this sense of “let Candy do her thing.” The person who holds the script that makes sure that we say all the lines or say the different things, like Ryan always tells them to ignore all of that when I’m working: “Let her do her thing.”
AVC: That is a significant amount of mutual trust, so it makes sense that Ryan Murphy would direct Candy’s final moments [Murphy also co-wrote episode four with Janet Mock]. “Never Knew Love Like This Before” is such a wonderful showcase for you and your character. There are great moments for almost everyone, but this is really your episode—we learn a lot more about Candy, but then you’re also bidding all of these really tearful goodbyes. Was there a particular scene or interaction that was hard for you to shoot?
AR: It was all tough to shoot, and in such a way that people kept checking on me. “Are you okay? Like you kind of just are powering through this.” For me, it was just an “I’m fine. I just want to get this done” sort of situation. What was probably the toughest for me was—so when they say “cut” or when we’re getting ready for things, they call in second team, which is our stand-ins to kind of help with lighting and all that stuff. We go back to sit in our chairs. I may not be able to have, because I’m around a lot of people, I can’t necessarily get on my phone and have a conversation with folks. But I can get on the internet and like a few pictures on Instagram or read what’s going on on Twitter, only to find out that another trans woman has been killed.
So what’s been really hard is carrying all that all the time and not being able to talk about the show. But people are wanting a response from you about what’s going on in real life, and I can’t, I have actually stepped away, because I can’t edit myself, I think. I don’t want to be at a place where I can’t speak so freely. What I did was use that moment and that space cathartically to hopefully ask or basically ask for forgiveness later from my community to say that during this time, I had to focus all my energy here. I wanted to make sure that I brought the right energy to the space. Before we start shooting this funeral scene, I read off the names of all the trans women of color who have been murdered, and I asked of the background [crew] and everyone involved to use these scenes and this time as a cathartic time to both think about all the trans women that we’ve lost, but also anybody that you have lost in this time to use this space to honor them, especially folks like Hector Xtravaganza, who we lost last season and was not here to be able to shoot season two with us.
That was difficult, because I thought that I was just going to be able to, right before we filmed, kind of read this off and get to work. But I couldn’t even get through the names before I was just a mess and they had to redo my makeup. But the time that it took to have that moment, and the time that it took for them to redo my makeup, no one—not a producer, not a director—no one saw that as wasted time.
AVC: Part of the memorial for Candy is the introduction of a lip sync to the balls going forward: “Candy’s Sweet Refrain.” Lip syncing is another element of drag culture that’s found its way into the mainstream, where it’s been watered down for a talk show segment turned competition series. What are your hopes for how the show will handle this part of the culture’s history?
AR: Well, I’ll say this. Even though I was not in the ballroom culture exactly—I was born in the ’80s and I don’t come from ballroom culture—but I was very, very, very ballroom adjacent in the sense that I came up performing in the bars and doing drag. And quote-unquote drag. It’s what some call drag. At the time, we called it female impersonation, because we thought that that was better than drag. But we didn’t understand how we were sort of oppressing ourselves with that terminology as well by saying that we were impersonating females, instead of like celebrity impersonators, or what have you.
But I’m a former pageant girl so I’ve been through the pageant systems: I was first runner-up to Miss Florida Continental three years in a row. The last time that I went, I was first runner-up to Erica Andrews, who, rest in peace, was one of the legends of our drag community, and she used to be a makeup artist in movie and television. So there’s such a history there that is also to be tapped into, that is definitely there for them to tap into. I’m not a part of the writers room. If I was, I would sort of suggest some of those things, but it’s very available for them to tell those stories.
But I remember my drag mothers, and they have black and white photos of the queens from each year. And even if it wasn’t their reigning photo with the crown on their head, it was pictures of Cézanne and Sheri Payne and all these girls back in the day. I mean, girls that were legends that weren’t ballroom girls, they were pageant girls. But it was a very, very similar struggle, one where these girls definitely had to juggle between sex work and working for tips in gay bars that were owned by gay men. You’ve seen on Pose some of the internal community issues, and there are other issues that we have yet to even talk about—about how gays and lesbians who are cis and have cis privilege to be employed in certain spaces or to have businesses and homes, have then used us as entertainment and oppressed us in ways where most of the drag bars—folks, we all love drag. Oh, everybody loves drag. But if you only knew what was behind all of that, and the fact that most of those girls are working for tips, and there’s rarely a bar that actually pays a girl a real booking fee or an actual check with taxes and things like that.
AVC: I think it’s obvious what the cast and the directors put into this episode, but what would you like viewers to take away from “Never Knew Love Like This Before”?
AR: I want viewers to hear Candy when she says, “Don’t waste your energy missing me, spend energy on a Candy girl out there. Beautify her in my stunning image.” Just to say that I know a lot of you all are going to get on Twitter and going to be rioting and going to be angry that they have killed Candy off. Instead of doing that, use that energy for the Candy girls out there that are dying right now. Get angry about that right now. That’s what I want them to take away from it.
AVC: The episode is basically a three-act play: first, tragedy strikes, followed by the long goodbye, and then the show recommits to life to once more. It’s a very difficult balance to strike between the humor and the glamor and the reality that trans people, particularly black trans women and trans women of color, are marginalized even within the queer community. Yet the show pulls it off.
AR: I know it might be confusing at times—people ask, “Well, how is the tone of this show one minute so dramatic and you’re crying, and the next it’s like you’re in a comedy?” But Pose, in order to be true to life for the experiences of trans people, it needs to move back and forth like that. We are some of the funniest bitches you will meet. We are some of the quickest, most quick-witted, because we have to be. Let me tell you, sometimes I am telling my story of what I’ve been through and all of these different things, or what have you, and people have asked me “How is it that you smile the way that you do?” And even my schedule practice has a lot to do with that. But in a general sense though, as trans people, we have this “pay it” sort of attitude that we’ve learned. That you have to learn that if you’re wanting to live your life and have agency over your life, whatever the price is to live that life, pay it. You’re willing to pay it. Even through the hardest times, we’re able to laugh.
I just remember having no money, being broke, not knowing where my next meal was coming from and having my drag mother leading me and guiding me through things. I remember sitting around the table cutting and reading each other for blood. But as we’re reading each other, and I’m being read, I’m in tears laughing. A real read will have the bitch that’s being read laughing, because it’s that good. It’s that good of a read. So we are the best at that.
I think that Pose is doing a beautiful job at showing just how life goes on for folks who are the most marginalized—that we have this certain level of acceptance and joy that we’re able to bring to every moment of life.
AVC: Speaking of those kinds of cutting reads, how much are you going to miss sparring with Billy Porter on a weekly basis?
AR: [Laughs.] Billy’s the other sort of improv-er of the show, and working with him, neither one of us knows what we’re going to do. Sometimes, I will tell Billy, I’ll be like, “Billy, I’m going to do this.” He’s like, “Look, you don’t got to tell...” Because sometimes, I feel like I should warn him, because I feel like sometimes knowing Candy, she might need to come with a warning. Pray Tell might need a warning about what Candy’s going to do. But Billy just says, “Listen, no, whatever you going to do, I can handle it.” I love working with an actor like that.
I think there’s trust there. He knows that I’m never going to do anything that makes him look silly, or what have you. But you have to also find the read. Take Candy and Elektra (Dominique Jackson)—I’m going around her in circle with the fight and the hammer and the knife. I’m like, “You about to get your fourth facelift,” or whatever. You have to let go, because the read has to cut kind of close.
So close that—well, let’s say, season one with Blanca, I was devastated reading Blanca season one. That was very hard, because I love MJ Rodriguez. She’s one of my favorite people on the planet. She truly has an amazing heart, and she’s just such an incredible talent. To stand across from her and be reading her about her hairline and to learn how to do her makeup... it was hard, it was hard. That was hard, but bitch got her makeup together, though. I bet you that. [Laughs.] That is the point of a read. I don’t even know how I can express it enough, but if somebody has leverage to read me, read me bitch. Read me, because you should not be able to come for me. I should be on myself where you should not be able to come for me. But bitch, if you can read me, read me, because I want to be better. So bitch, read me.